A Robot Dog as Sheepdog

In May 2020 the media was interested in a video by Rocos showing a robot from Boston Dynamics trying to be a shepherd dog. You could see the artificial quadruped running towards a flock of sheep. “Now, it’s clear that the video is mostly a fun teaser rather than a serious claim by Rocos (or Boston Dynamics) that robots will soon be replacing sheepdogs.” (The Verge, 22 May 2020) According to the magazine, it does invite a tantalizing question: if that did happen, “how well would the robots fare” (The Verge, 22 May 2020)? “Terrible”, is the straight answer of sheep farmer and author James Rebanks. “The robot might be an amazing tool for lots of things but it is worthless and unwanted as a sheepdog …” (The Verge, 22 May 2020) However, the profession of shepherd is not everywhere in the world the dream of all boys and girls, and shepherd dogs do not fall from the sky. It is also not clear whether there is a big difference for the sheep and how positively or negatively they react to the machine. It is just as unclear whether lambs that have never met real dogs would be comfortable with it. This would have to be researched in animal psychology and social robotics and in disciplines such as animal-machine interaction, which are still in their infancy. Only then would one know whether the shepherd interviewed by the magazine is right.

Towards Animal-machine Interaction

Animal-machine interaction (AMI) and animal-computer interaction (ACI) are increasingly important research areas. For years, semi-autonomous and autonomous machines have been multiplying all over the world, not only in factories, but also in outdoor areas and in households. Robots in agriculture and service robots, some with artificial intelligence, encounter wild animals, farm animals and pets. Jackie Snow, who writes for New York Times, National Geographic, and Wall Street Journal, talked to several people on the subject last year. In an article for Fast Company, she quoted the ethicists Oliver Bendel (“Handbuch Maschinenethik”) and Peter Singer (“Animal Liberation”). Clara Mancini (“Animal-computer interaction: A manifesto”) also expressed her point of view. The article with the title “AI’s next ethical challenge: how to treat animals” can be accessed here. Today, research is also devoted to social robots. One question is how animals react to them. Human-computer interaction (HCI) experts from Yale University recently looked into this topic. Another question is whether we can create social robots specifically for animals. The first beginnings were made with toys and automatic feeders for pets. Could a social robot replace a contact person for weeks on end? What features should it have? In this context, we must pay attention to animal welfare from the outset. Some animals will love the new freedom, others will hate it.

Another Animal-friendly Machine

Between June 2019 and January 2020 the project HAPPY HEDGEHOG (HHH) was implemented at the School of Business FHNW. Initiator and client was Oliver Bendel. In the context of machine ethics, the students Emanuel Graf, Kevin Bollier, Michel Beugger and Vay Lien Chang developed the prototype of a lawnmower robot that stops working as soon as it discovers a hedgehog. HHH has a thermal imaging camera. If it encounters a warm object, it further examines it using image recognition. At night a lamp mounted on top helps. After training with hundreds of photos, HHH can identify a hedgehog quite accurately. Firstly, another moral machine has been created in the laboratory, and secondly, the team provides a possible solution to a problem that frequently occurs in practice: commercial lawnmower robots often kill baby hedgehogs in the dark. HAPPY HEDGEHOG could help save them. The video on youtu.be/ijIQ8lBygME shows it without casing; a photo with casing can be found here. The robot is in the tradition of LADYBIRD, another animal-friendly machine.

An Autonomous Ship at Sea

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) could be the first vessel to cross the Atlantic that is able to navigate around obstacles and hazards by itself. It will depart from Plymouth, UK on the fourth centenary of the original Mayflower voyage, on 6 September 2020, and will reach Plymouth, USA after an ecxiting tour, dedicated to science. “The project was put together by marine research and exploration company ProMare in an effort to expand the scope of marine research. The boat will carry three research pods equipped with scientific instruments to measure various phenomena such as ocean plastics, mammal behaviour or sea level changes.” (ZDnet, 16 October 2019) According to ZDnet, IBM has now joined the initiative to supply technical support for all navigation operations. It is important that the futuristic ship is not only careful with things, but also with animals. In this context, insights of animal-machine interaction and machine ethics might be useful. Ultimately, the excursion will help the marine mammals by obtaining data on their behaviour.

Happy Hedgehog

Between June 2019 and January 2020, the sixth artifact of machine ethics will be created at the FHNW School of Business. Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel is the initiator, the client and – together with a colleague – the supervisor of the project. Animal-machine interaction is about the design, evaluation and implementation of (usually more sophisticated or complex) machines and computer systems with which animals interact and communicate and which interact and communicate with animals. Machine ethics has so far mainly referred to humans, but can also be useful for animals. It attempts to conceive moral machines and to implement them with the help of further disciplines such as computer science and AI or robotics. The aim of the project is the detailed description and prototypical implementation of an animal-friendly service robot, more precisely a mowing robot called HAPPY HEDGEHOG (HHH). With the help of sensors and moral rules, the robot should be able to recognize hedgehogs (especially young animals) and initiate appropriate measures (interruption of work, expulsion of the hedgehog, information of the owner). The project has similarities with another project carried out earlier, namely LADYBIRD. This time, however, more emphasis will be placed on existing equipment, platforms and software. The first artifact at the university was the GOODBOT – in 2013.